Every time a citizen with good intentions provokes a police-state reaction from the local authorities, the angels smile and society moves one millimeter closer to salvation. It doesn't take much to provoke them. Just down the road in liberal, affable Chapel Hill, where I lived for many years without experiencing police brutality or much civil disobedience, a reporter with a camera recorded steroidal officers in full SWAT-team battle gear, pistols and assault rifles at the ready, charging an unarmed encampment of self-described anarchists who had "liberated" a vacant building. A few seconds later the reporter was arrested, handcuffed and forced to lie facedown on the pavement with the unfortunate anarchists, who had neither resisted nor threatened any crime greater than trespassing. Amazed bystanders chanted "Shame! Shame!"
Shame, indeed. Attempts by the police chief and the mayor to defend this preposterous cinematic overkill only added to the embarrassment. They claim that the assault rifles were not aimed at the protesters, but the photograph is there for everyone to see that they're lying. Police attacked without warning due, they claimed, to "the known risks associated with anarchist groups," as if America has been much plagued by anarchist violence. If some protester had made a nervous grab for his cellphone or his fountain pen, would we have had a bullet-riddled (unarmed) corpse lying on Franklin Street? For that frozen moment caught by the beleaguered reporter's camera, downtown Chapel Hill looked like the streets of Cairo or Damascus.
This is North Carolina, where we like to believe that our law enforcement officers still emulate Sheriff Andy Taylor of the canonical Andy Griffith Show. What would Andy have done in the same situation, instead of recruiting 15 commandos in riot gear to arrest seven unarmed trespassers? He would, of course, have sent over Aunt Bee with a plate of fresh brownies, and then amiably advised the young people that they could have breakfast tomorrow at home, or with him at the jailhouse—their choice. And he would have kept his excitable deputy Barney Fife, with his one bullet, as far from the crime scene as possible.
Real life was never much like Mayberry R.F.D. But Chapel Hill is nothing much like Oakland or Manhattan, where a wild variety of dangerous characters might be camping out with the idealists. I'm sympathetic to the plight of police officers, who are—thanks to America's psychotic gun cult and its captive legislators, next to suicide bombers, the craziest people left on Earth—facing the Streets of Laredo every day on the job.
Last week in Wake County, a deputy answering a domestic disturbance call took a shotgun blast in the chest and was saved only by his bulletproof vest. In the NRA's Second Amendment Nation, any gray-haired lady tending her philodendrons may be packing a Glock. But in a temperate zone like Chapel Hill, someone in authority ought to be experienced and prudent enough to realize that college-town demonstrators are a fairly harmless lot compared to wife beaters, or even Tea Party soldiers whose T-shirts say "God, Guns, Babies."
"Anarchist" is one of those alien-sounding words that make simple people very nervous. Sometimes I wish that protesters would merely state their grievances and leave all those isms, those media-tortured labels, at home. It only takes one nervous rifleman, maybe one who grew up hearing about depraved radicals and atheists on right-wing radio, to panic and trigger Kent State, or Tahrir Square. With the Occupy Wall Street movement now spreading to hundreds of cities and campuses, and mounting pressure on thousands of defensive and unsophisticated police officers, it would be the safe and civilized decision to leave those assault rifles back in their lockers—at least until someone spots a demonstrator carrying one.
The liberators of the derelict auto dealership in Chapel Hill were acting independently of the local "Occupy" encampment, which disavowed their action while acknowledging their affiliation with the movement. But the Occupiers, whose critique of America emphasizes its mindless materialism, are no doubt delighted to point out what a sleepy Southern town full of Ph.D.s will do to protect abandoned property. Never mind the rhetoric. Just look at the picture.
Occupy 6, Chapel Hill 0. No need to kick the extra point. Other critical points for the movement were scored at UC Davis, where passive protesters were callously and viciously pepper-sprayed, and at UC Berkeley, where Robert Hass, a former U.S. poet laureate, described a cordon of Alameda County deputies with billy clubs smashing students and faculty indiscriminately. Hass himself was hit in the ribs and arms, his wife was knocked to the ground, and a Wordsworth scholar was dragged across the grass by her long humanist hair.
Idiot force has been deployed against Occupy at dozens of its tent cities, although assault rifles have yet to appear anywhere other than Chapel Hill. Every image of belligerent overreaction to a nonviolent protest—diligently videotaped, instantly online—is a victory for this promising experiment in civil disobedience, which in the digital age commands an audience inconceivable to Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.
But those great martyrs of nonviolence, who succeeded in spite of the violence they failed to survive, laid down the rules of this game. It's about self-control: You conquer by conquering yourself. Your enemy is exposed, isolated and in the end defeated by his brutality and lack of restraint.
That's all to the good, unless those are your ribs, your hair. The other lesson young rebels learn rapidly is that revolutions, in the words of one of Chapel Hill's declared anarchists, "are not like a dinner party." Civil disobedience is no walk in the park. It involves serious physical risks. There are sometimes martyrs. Pressed sufficiently, even the most benign authority will usually show its fangs. Television deceives. Was there ever a real-life lawman like Sheriff Andy Taylor, who never met a malefactor he didn't like? Or even one like Marshal Matt Dillon, who was always fair and avoided violence if he could? It's not a great secret that most people who seek authority, or defend it, fall toward the controlling side of the psychological spectrum. They tend to prize order and orderly citizens, an equilibrium that civil disobedience so rudely violates. "Disturbing the peace" is a punishable offense with deep historical roots.
Disturb their peace and they will bite you, they will beat you. They might shoot you. Expect no smiles, no brownies. You make a stern, life-altering commitment when you take your grievances to the street. I had to grin at an e-mail an old friend forwarded to me, from his daughter in New York, who joined last week's night march across the Brooklyn Bridge to reclaim Zuccotti Park. "Being a revolutionary is cold work," she reports.
It's cold, dangerous and not always rewarding. Failed movements make cynics of young people who embrace a cause with everything they have and see it come to nothing. My generation, the one that marched against segregation and the war in Vietnam, can point to major achievements and major disappointments. On our worst days we feel that we, as a generation, are a major disappointment. It's a right-wing canard that the tie-dyed Aquarians all ended up in pinstripes—true Jerry Rubins are rare—but how did the egalitarian dreams of the '60s decay into the grim corporate feudalism that Occupy Wall Street so quixotically confronts? At what point, exactly, was it clear that greed had trumped altruism and cash had devoured representative democracy?
If this is a revolution we're watching, perhaps it's not so much class warfare as generational warfare. The most deluded members of my generation join the mock-revolution they call the tea party, funded by fascist billionaires, scripted by the usual talk-radio gargoyles and apparently so stunted by the brain plaque of advancing age that it imagines the government is its archenemy, to the great amusement of the corporate leviathans who operate that government like a hand puppet.
This cruel farce draws most of its recruits from my own demographic group, and I'm ashamed. Who knows why expired testosterone leads to big guns, silly hats and prayer breakfasts? The late George Kennan, a brilliant diplomat and historian but a disturbing elitist, once espoused limiting the vote to white males. In America's best interests, I'd be willing to see that Kennan doctrine reversed: Take the vote away from white men, or at least all white men over 45. See what that would do for the GOP. Naturally, I hope the young people in charge would make exceptions for me and a couple of my friends.
The truth, in spite of all the graybeards who keep running for president, is that our time is over. If I slept out on the ground my arthritis would cripple me. And in all honesty, though I joined a march or two in my time, passive resistance was never one of my strengths. If some storm trooper with a truncheon steamrollered my wife the way Hass' wife was steamrollered, I'd get his badge number and probably burn his house down. It's an ethnic tic. You probably saw Braveheart.
It's up to them now, the green, clean, unexpected revolutionaries one Manhattan office worker called "those terrific kids in the park." It's up to you, whoever you are, and encouraging polls indicate that most Americans don't buy the predictable smears from the right-wing coven, the ones that dismiss you as spoiled children of privilege who would rather demonstrate than work. If our self-esteem is based on the noxiousness of our enemies—I cherish mine—you should all be swollen with pride. You've been called "fascists" by Karl Rove, a criminal thug who belongs on Cellblock B instead of Fox News. Ann Coulter claims that America views you with "hilarity and revulsion," which pretty accurately sums up her own impact and her career. "Go get a bath right after you get a job," snarls Newt Gingrich, an influence-peddler who's had no legitimate job for 15 years and exists only to give the word "hypocrisy" a human face.
My sympathies are obvious. What you in the tents can accomplish remains to be seen. But what I think I see, through the media fog of polarized America, is the return of the full-fledged idealists (as opposed to single-issue idealists) who seemed to go underground around 1980, possibly because the mass media abandoned them during the mudslide of self-celebration that began with Reaganism and culminated in Facebook.
I say God bless them, and God will if he still has any investment in the United States of America. The Goliath they challenge has crushed a thousand Davids. The good news is that "the kids" are right on target. Their diagnosis is bull's-eye correct, and the patient is critical. For this country to survive, it must find saner ways to pursue and multiply wealth, and find them quickly. The cannibal capitalism that produced a Goldman Sachs and a Bernie Madoff is subhuman and obscene. There's no form of government more inherently offensive than plutocracy—only theocracy comes close. When a citizen comes of age in a plutocracy, he has no moral choice but to slay Pluto or die trying.
The history of American plutocracy is shockingly simple. The Industrial Revolution fueled the metamorphosis of capitalism into a ravenous monster that devoured resources, landscapes and human beings on a scale no wars or natural disasters had ever approached. The wealth generated by this devastation created colossal corporations and financial operations far more powerful than elected governments; long ago the individuals who controlled these giants learned that it was cost-effective to buy up the politicians and turn governments into virtual subsidiaries. Along with the unprecedented wealth of the new ruling class came two protective myths, transparently false but widely accepted: one, that the feeble, compliant federal government was somehow the enemy of free enterprise; two, the outrageous trickle-down theory, which urged us to choke the rich with riches in the hope that they would disgorge a few crumbs for the peasants.
Investment banks and hedge funds were designed as perfect engines for multiplying the assets of the affluent. The Wall Street elite of the 20th century—Masters of the Universe, Tom Wolfe called them—flew so far above the laws of the land that they began to imagine themselves exempt from all laws, including economics, physics and averages. This magical thinking came to a head with a wave of death-defying speculation in mortgage-backed securities, and quite suddenly, in 2008, the walls came tumbling down, exposing a phantom economy based on nothing but arrogance and sleight of hand.
Huge banks failed while others begged for taxpayer bailouts, the markets reeled and contracted, unemployment soared, foreign banks and governments began to look askance at America's credit. Instead of a stable economy and an affluent society we confronted a hemorrhaging scandal, a crime accurately portrayed as the looting of America. We woke up from our consumer coma to discover that the bastards had stolen everything. You've seen the numbers: The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, the super-rich targeted by OWS, emerged from this shattered, looted economy with a net worth greater than the "bottom" 90 percent.
In the past 30 years they've nearly tripled their after-tax income—275 percent—while the poorest fifth gained a virtually stagnant 18 percent. Economist Paul Krugman emphasizes that it's the one-tenth of 1 percent, the fabulously rich one-thousandth, who account for a lion's share of the 1 percent's gains. These high lords of lucre have increased their income 400 percent since 1979.
Meanwhile, one in seven Americans lives below the poverty line, and a full one-third,100 million—live in poverty or what The New York Times calls "the fretful zone just above it." One in 15, the largest percentage since the Great Depression, falls 50 percent below the poverty line, with an annual individual income of less than $6,000. In a recent German study that established a "social justice" index (poverty levels, education, health care, income equality) for countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranked 27th among 31 nations, outstripping only Greece, Turkey, Chile and Mexico. Meanwhile, also, Wall Street banks on taxpayer life support continued to pay out billions in bonuses, monstrously inflated CEO salaries showed no signs of shrinking and the Republican Party campaigned for more of the bloody same, and a stronger dose of it: no taxes, no regulations, no unions.
This is beyond unacceptable, much closer to unspeakable, like an economic survey comparing the French court at Versailles to the sans-culottes. This is not what the Founders of the Great American Experiment had in mind (they thought slavery might be the fatal worm in our apple, but it turned out to be capitalism). This is what the OWS demonstrators, emerging from our underperforming high schools and colleges, found blocking their way to the future. Critics chide them for failing to establish specific demands, but a slate of demands from Occupy Chicago struck me as savvy and dead-on: repeal tax cuts and close loopholes for the rich, prosecute the Wall Street felons of 2008, separate commercial lending from investment banking, rein in lobbyists, eliminate corporate personhood and overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision of 2010.
This last demand is perhaps the most critical. The decision that defined campaign contributions as free speech, delivered by the court's 5-4 Republican majority, removed the last legal obstacles to a wallet-based political system that leaves the 1 percent, or one-hundredth of 1 percent, in unchallenged control of our fortunes and our public lives. It opened the floodgates for a multibillion-dollar campaign to defeat President Obama, and any candidates who might resist corporate feudalism, in 2012.
In the words of the late Molly Ivins, "We either get the money out of politics or we lose the democracy."
There's a grave possibility that it has already been lost. But those "terrific kids" in the tents, with their black-and-blue ribs and their eyes red from pepper spray, seem to be the only Americans who are dead sure what's at stake. "I want us to be the country's moral touchstone, its unofficial conscience, its model for what is good," said one rebel named Katie, coughing with bronchitis from sleeping outside.
Wear garlic against the pundit or politician who sneers at Katie. She and her friends may be the last, best hope, if hope there is. Join them if you're young and tough enough, send them money if you can still afford it, but for God's sake listen to them. Their voices represent either America waking up at last, or its final, futile protests about to be smothered by dumb money and dumb force. Will you sit on the sidelines and watch?